I am not going to discuss exertional rhabdomyolysis (a painful muscle condition from too much exercise). That is the bad kind of tying up. This is the good kind — where we can tie a horse up to a solid thing and walk away, and the horse is fine. That’s harder than you may think. There are lots of horses out there that can’t tie.
It’s not surprising, really. Horses were never designed to be confined, and they often find it very taxing, especially at first. Then, if the horse is really new to the experience and wants to run away or is scared by something, it is very startled to find that it is unable to move in the direction it wants to. For the prey animal, this is as close as you can get to a heart attack without actually having one.
Often, it is recommended that the horse be tied up to an inner tube attached to a post with nothing else around it and left there for hours to figure it out himself. I used to be a proponent of this idea; however, I have since found a more humane way of getting across to the horse that it is not to go anywhere.
The first step is teaching the horse how to lead forward.
The second step is teaching the horse how to stop.
The third step is teaching the horse how to stand still.
With all that in place, he can be taught to tie, because tying is essentially stopping and standing still, and moving forward if he happens to feel pressure on his head.
You can still use a post for this. You are going to lead him up to it and tell him to stand. Get him comfortable being around the post and standing still near that post. If you like, you could even make the post a ‘happy spot’ by making him work in its vicinity, but letting him rest right beside it.
Now you are going to put the rope through the ring or inner tube or whatever is on the post, but don’t tie it yet. You are going to stand to one side and just see what his reaction is to receiving pressure from the post. Back him up from the post so that there is about 4 feet of rope between him and the post (but make sure you have enough rope still to stand away from the post!). Then apply light pressure to ask him to move forward towards the post. Try not to make your pulling on the rope too obvious, and don’t give him any help in terms of vocal commands or arm waving. If you have properly trained him to lead (not follow!) he should move two steps forward lightly. If he does, you can confidently tie him up; if anything bad happens, he will know what to do. Go back to step one if he does not step forward without an increase in pressure.
Of course, you don’t want anything bad to happen, so you are going to be very careful, especially at first. Going through the motions of saddling at the post is a good idea, but I would only do it if he will stand on command without a post or another person to be saddled. If he doesn’t, go back to step three. Help him out by giving him the ‘stand’ command, and run the rope through the ring and drape it over your arm for the first couple of times so he isn’t tied hard and fast. If he feels the need to move, he will be able to, and you will be able to apply calm, soft negative reinforcement. While the post can apply negative reinforcement, it is rather unyielding, and that creates more pressure at first than he can handle.
So, go nice and slow through all the steps, increasing the difficulty for him as he is ready, and you’ll have yourself a tying horse.
By the way, going back to the basics works even for the horse that has already been taught how to tie but really isn’t great at it, or one who pulls. Showing them exactly what is needed (leading up to the post, standing) makes them more comfortable with the idea. It also helps, in the behaviour modification setting, to move the context of the tying post. Use a post you have never used before, not one the horse already associates with pulling or scariness.